Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How To Reform Intelligence Reform (Testimony)

Robert Hutchings, Diplomat in Residence at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and formerly the Director of the NIC, recently testified before Congress regarding the state of intelligence reform. In what has to be one of the bluntest reports on record, Hutchings lays out his problems with recent reform efforts and outlines five recommendations for "reforming the reform". It is compelling testimony with a number of surprising insights that make this a "must read". Highlights include (Boldface and italics are mine):

  • "Let me first preview my bottom line: namely, that the organizational changes that led to the creation of the office of the DNI were undertaken without addressing the other aspects of the 9/11 Commission recommendations. The result, I fear, may leave us worse off rather than better."
  • "The pre-war debate was never about the intelligence but about the policy. Yet the policymakers who launched the war and the members of Congress who voted for it, chose to blame it all on faulty intelligence. Neither the 9/11 Commission nor the WMD Commission addressed the failures of policy, which were vastly more serious than anything the intelligence community did or failed to do."
  • "Democrats attacked the intelligence community to get at the president; Republicans attacked it to protect him. What both sides agreed on was to stick it to the intelligence community."
  • "Let me hasten to add that the intelligence community did and does need reform. But these reforms were debated in the worst possible climate for sound judgment."
  • "This idea is also tied up with what I call the “coordination myth”: namely, that it is somehow possible to “coordinate” the work of hundreds of thousands of people across dozens of agencies operating in nearly every country of the world. Anyone who has worked in complex organizations knows, or should know, that it is possible to coordinate only a few select activities and that there are always tradeoffs, because every time you coordinate some activities you are simultaneously weakening coordination among others."
  • With those thoughts in mind, let me offer five suggestions for intelligence reform, none of which entail further organizational change.
    • First, fix the “demand” side of the problem.
      • In 2004, when I was Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, we produced a bleak assessment of the Iraqi insurgency that incurred presidential wrath when it leaked to the New York Times. But the real story was that the President hadn’t read it – not even the one-page “Presidential Summary”! (This is the second time this has been brought up in the last week. See With Spies Like These for the previous reference).
      • This is not a marketplace in which intelligence products have any intrinsic value; they are freely and routinely ignored.
    • Second and relatedly, create an interagency strategic planning group.
      • Interagency planning may seem obvious, but it does not happen because administrations do not want it. Individual departments certainly do not: they want their own pet projects held close until the last possible moment rather than having them run up against the competing ideas of other departments.
    • Third, strengthen Congressional oversight, as the 9/11 Commission recommended.
      • In the past year or so there have been two National Intelligence Estimates on terrorism – with quite alarming findings. But to my knowledge no Congressional hearings on those estimates have occurred. On the second of those estimates, concerning threats to the homeland, General Hayden said (at the Council on Foreign Relations) that 70% of the information came from detainee interrogations. This is worrying for two reasons: it shows how poor our penetration of terrorist networks still is, and this dependency on (often dated) detainee information can turn into a circular argument for continuing our disastrous detainee policy. Have there been Congressional hearings to look into this?
    • Fourth, accentuate the strategic coordinating role of the DNI and de-emphasize the centralization of operational functions.
      • Let me focus on the very first of the 33 “enabling objectives” of the 500-day plan – to formalize a “National Intelligence University.” I think I know what a university is. What the IC intends is not one; it is a training center. Calling it a university is a triumph of form over substance.
    • This then leads to my fifth and final recommendation: begin the evolutionary process of changing the culture of intelligence.
      • This will entail a radical re-conceptualization of what “intelligence” is and should be. We have moved from an era in which clandestinely acquired information accounted for a large chunk of what we needed to know (or thought we needed to know) into one in which our “secrets” count for relatively little for most of the issues that affect our national well-being. (Again, see With Spies Like These... for a recent reference to this same issue).

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